One woman’s genealogical journey

International Conference on Jewish Genealogy draws hundreds to Boston


Providence-based Maureen Taylor, a “photo detective,” speaks at a genealogy conference in Boston. /SUSAN YOUNGWOOD BOSTON – Genealogy is like reading a detective story about your own family.

My first revelation occurred more than a decade ago when I searched census records for my father’s family. My father liked to say that Youngwood was originally Youngholtz, and had been changed at Ellis Island.

So count me surprised when I discovered that, no, it had never been Youngholtz and. no, it wasn’t changed at Ellis Island.

My name started out as Youngwitz and was changed between 1910 and 1920, decades after the patriarch emigrated from Warsaw. In fact, Ellis Island didn’t exist as an immigration center when Joseph Youngwitz landed in New York City in 1867.

I figured that Youngwitz was an Americanized version of the name, but I had no idea how to determine what it might have been before.

Then, while attending a session on Jewish surnames at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, held in early August in Boston, I opened a new chapter in my family sleuthing.

This conference attracted 1,200 attendees from all over the world. For six days, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., scores of workshops, lectures and sessions on every possible aspect of Jewish genealogy and history were held.

In just one time slot, for example, I could have attended sessions on Lithuanian research, Holocaust genealogical research, a history of Jews of New York City, Touro Synagogue and Jews of Newport, finding family history in Australia and Haplogroups: What they are and what they mean for Jews.

Two companies competing to analyze individuals’ DNA dominated the exhibit hall. DNA tests are the latest thing in genealogy, and both and Family Tree DNA want your business. Armed with DNA results, you could unearth distant cousins and discover your great-great-great-great-grandmother’s roots. You could also learn that, despite your German last name, you actually have Sephardic roots.

Each attendee wore a badge identifying five family surnames and the places those ancestors came from. A binder, called the Family Finder, listed all of these. To my surprise, a man contacted me the first day – his great-grandmother Strauss came from the same German town as my grandfather Straus. Our family trees reveal that we may be distant cousins. Since he knows a genealogical researcher in Germany, we should be able to learn more.

Overwhelmed by the choices, I focused on attending seminars about Jewish names, German ancestry and historical lectures.

I learned a lot.

At a workshop called Organize-It, the speaker recommended we color code all of our files. Every family branch gets its own color – blue for the Rosenblatts, green for the Cohns, yellow for the Levines.

Brandeis University’s National Center for Jewish Film has a large collection of archival Jewish film, and is collecting home movies depicting Jewish life.

Zack Wilske, a historian with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, offered guidance on requesting records from the government. If I follow through, I might get a 1930s-era photo of my grandfather, a copy of his birth certificate and correspondence concerning his naturalization process.

At a session on the New York City censuses of the early 1900s, I learned that census workers earned $2 per day and a penny per name. I also learned how to search those censuses through a website run by the speaker, Steve Morse.

Maureen Taylor, a Providence-based expert in photograph identification and genealogy, described how she uses artifacts in a photo – clothing, backdrops and props – to determine when the photo was taken. Based on one straw hat, she pegged one photo from 1910.

As my mother’s side of the family all came from Bavaria, Germany, between 1841 and 1855, I inhaled Ekkehard Hubschmann’s lecture, “Jewish Emigration from Bavaria.”

My mother’s great-grandmother, Esther Yankauer, came with her four brothers from Burgkundstadt in the 1850s. According to Hubschmann, Burgkundstadt had restricted the number of Jewish families to 78. While Bavaria allowed Jews the freedom to practice their religion in the Jew Edict of 1813, Jews had to register, select a last name and pledge an oath of allegiance. This edict restricted the number of Jews in each community, and limited the number of marriages allowed.

So Jews had three choices – establish residency in another town through marriage, live with their parents and remain single or emigrate.

Add crop failures and famines, and the result was that, between 1840 and 1871, about 25,000 Jews left Bavaria.

Because emigrants had to go through a strict process to get permission to leave, there’s a good chance that somewhere in Bavaria are files with the emigration applications from Esther and her brothers, with valuable family history.

The session on Jewish names by Warren Blatt, managing director of, dispelled many myths about Ashkenazi surnames.

As I had discovered from my own research, names were not changed at Ellis Island. Blatt said Jews renamed themselves, typically when they applied for citizenship, went to school or got a job.

The history of surnames is remarkably short, he said. Most Jews have had their last names for only about 200 years. Before, Jews were usually named after their father (Chaim Schlomovitz’s son was called Moshe Chaimovitz). Edicts mandating surnames began in 1787 in Austria and Poland in 1821, for example.

Blatt said Jews hated these laws, and continued using the old system. They would forget their surnames. Two brothers might take different last names and two strangers took the same name. Names, said Blatt, were devoid of meaning and not taken seriously.

In fact, he said, “Spelling didn’t matter. Consistent spelling is a 20th-century invention.”

Blatt noted comprehensive research by Alexander Beider, who has catalogued the etymology and lineage of thousands of Jewish surnames from Russia and Poland.

After his lecture, I visited the conference’s resource room and took out Beider’s books.

Since jung means young in German, maybe Youngwitz had been Jungwitz, I theorized. I flipped the pages to the J’s.

And there it was. Jungwic was a Jewish surname from Plock and Warsaw in Poland, and Pinsk in Belarus. It came from German, and means “young wit.”

Blatt said the derivation of Jewish surnames means nothing –  Schneiders weren’t necessarily tailors and Berliners didn’t necessarily come from Berlin. But it’s hard to see that derivation and not imagine some Jewish council trying to come up with surnames for its community members, considering the class comedian and deciding to call my ancestors’ Jungwic. Or perhaps my ancestors, laughing in the face of the edict, came up with the name themselves.

Susan Youngwood    ( is a member of the editorial board of The Jewish Voice.